Sarcasm or no, not all conservatives were so sanguine. Rush Limbaugh blasted the hire; "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives," he said on his eponymous radio show Thursday. Now it’s just wide-out in the open. ... It’s the media planting the flag here. I think even the media’s last stand, but it’s a declaration. There’s no unity in this hire. They hired a partisan so-called comedian to run a comedy show.”
The back and forth over Colbert's — or should we say "Colbert's" — conservatism raises a question: What are Stephen Colbert's politics?
That's a somewhat difficult question to answer because he spent so little time out of character in recent years — particularly as "The Colbert Report" grew bigger and bigger. The assumption — among Democrats and most Republicans — is that the real Colbert is a Democrat, a perception largely due to his viciously biting satire of conservatism as "Stephen Colbert."
During a 2005 appearance on NPR, Colbert — then a "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" correspondent — appeared to confirm that his conservative blowhard character did indeed come from his liberal worldview. "Jon asked me to have a political opinion, and it turned out that I had one," Colbert said. "But I didn't realize quite how liberal I was until I was asked to make passionate comedic choices, as opposed to necessarily successful comedic choices."
In October 2012, he told "Meet the Press" host David Gregory: "I'm interested in the news, so people often think that I'm an ideologue or that I have a political intent. ... But I comment on things that are in the news."
And, he told Foxnews.com in the fall of 2013: “I'm not trying to make a point; I'm trying to make a joke. Sometimes my personal views are what I am saying, but it is important to me that you never know when that is."
A search of Colbert's past political donations at the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that he has given to only one candidate in his life — his sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), who ran unsuccessfully against now-Rep. Mark Sanford (R) in a 2013 special election in South Carolina. He gave the maximum $5,200 to his sister's campaign.
What is clear is that Colbert's audience — despite his faux conservatism — tilted heavily liberal and Democratic. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey of news consumption and partisanship found that just more than one in 10 viewers (12 percent) of "The Colbert Report" were Republicans, while 38 percent were independents and 45 percent identified themselves as Democrats. Just 14 percent of Colbert viewers identified themselves as "conservatives." Those numbers mirrored the "Daily Show" viewership and amounted to the smallest number of Republicans and conservatives watching any show short of the decidedly liberal "Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC.
While Colbert's personal politics will be a major part of the discussion as he makes the massive move from Comedy Central to CBS late-night, they might well be beside the point. The real question at the heart of Colbert's move is whether he can be successful playing not "Stephen Colbert" but rather simply being Stephen Colbert.